Oldie but Goodie: ‘Whore’ stigma devalues women, victims of violent crimes

by Guest Columnist
Tuesday, April 17, 2007


This is the second part of a five-part series promoting Sex Out Loud's annual Sexual Health Week.Last November, four women were killed in a hate crime. On Nov. 28, the corpses of Kimberly Raffo, Barbara Breidor, Tracy Ann Roberts and Molly Jean Dilts were found in a drainage ditch near Atlantic City. One woman died of suffocation, another died of strangulation and the other two women's bodies were too decomposed for the coroner to determine the cause of death. The ongoing investigation of these hate crimes has been fairly low profile, as has the media coverage of the killings. As police continue to search for the killer, the families and friends of the victims are left to wonder: Why did a serial killer victimize these women, and why has the public outrage been so minimal? One answer is that all four women worked as prostitutes.

Prostitution is illegal in 49 U.S. states, and in the 50th, Nevada, it is so highly regulated that sex workers have little choice of when, where or with whom they work. The fact that prostitution is illegal in New Jersey has been a roadblock for investigators trying to find the Atlantic City killer because prostitutes who could be valuable witnesses are reluctant to come forward for fear of self-incrimination. Furthermore, whore stigma — or the idea that women labeled as whores are somehow disposable or less human — helps explain why public outrage has been underwhelming. If four housewives, college students or investment bankers were found dead in a ditch that would be tragic, but those whores got what they deserved.

While voluntary adult prostitution is a victimless activity, it is a crime in most places in America. The reason we make anti-prostitution laws is to protect sex workers and their clients from activities that we say are demeaning and vulgar. These laws do not cause prostitution to go away. They do, however, isolate hookers by forcing them to work underground, by preventing them from being able to report crimes against their person and by making it difficult for them to access health care, unions, drug counseling and the legal system.

Whore stigma hurts more than sex workers, and it is alive and well on this campus. During the week of a Michigan football game any number of students will wear a shirt that says, “Ann Arbor is a whore,” suggesting that our team should treat Michigan's team with the same violence one would treat a hooker. This stigma makes it more socially acceptable to verbally and physically harass or assault women who we label as “sluts” or “whores.” This demeans any woman considered to be sexually deviant or promiscuous.

Whore stigma does real damage to women. It creates the idea that a person's value is contingent on the social acceptability of his or her sexual activity. Whether a person has too many partners, has sex outside of relationships or engages in kinkier than “normal” sexual practices, too often we will judge that person in ways that are hurtful. The presence or absence of communication, safer sex methods, consent and satisfaction (emotional, physical or monetary) can be helpful indicators of whether a sexual act is mutually consensual or likely to spread STIs and HIV. Judging people by how much sex they have or why they have it, however, only increases stigmatization of women and justifies violence against women.

Instead of condemning people who don't have sex how we want them to, it makes more sense to give people power to make their own informed choices. Kimberly, Barbara, Tracy and Molly did not deserve to be killed because they made unpopular choices. They deserved police protection against those who would commit hate crimes against prostitutes.

This week Sex Out Loud is celebrating Sexual Health Week in order to help UW-Madison students make informed decisions about their sexuality. Check out the calendar of events at http://www.sexoutloud.com.

(alslabosky@wisc.edu) is a senior majoring in history and political science. She is also a Sex Out Loud staff member.

Ann Slabosky



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